Brown CS Blog

Diverse Career Paths: Brown CS Alum Peter Revesz Deciphers The Inscription On An Ancient Sphinx

    Click the links that follow for more news about other recent accomplishments by our alums and their diverse career paths.

    On a trip to Athens as a Fulbright scholar in 2008, Brown CS alum Peter Revesz, now a professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Computing with a courtesy appointment in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies, remembered his conversations with the late Paris Kanellakis, a Brown CS faculty member. 

    “Looking at some Minoan writings,” Peter says, “I remembered talking with Paris about ancient scripts, and I started thinking about everything I’d learned since then in computational linguistics and cryptography. I asked myself: can I make some more progress on this?”

    It was a question that ultimately led to his deciphering a series of enigmatic ancient inscriptions, including 28 Minoan Linear A texts, the Phaistos Disk, and most recently, the inscription on a 3rd-century Roman statue of a sphinx that has baffled scholars for almost two centuries.

    Paris Kanellakis, also Peter’s doctoral advisor, was a distinguished computer scientist who came to Brown in 1981 and became a full professor in 1990. Tragically, he died in an airplane crash on December 20, 1995, along with his wife, Maria Teresa Otoya, and their two young children, Alexandra and Stephanos Kanellakis.

    “He was a brilliant person and a very interesting character,” says Peter, recalling how Paris kept a copy of the famous Phaistos Disk, a Minoan inscription with decorative symbols arranged in spiral form, on his desk. “We talked about all kinds of things, and we were both fascinated with the idea of looking into the past and seeing what other people were thinking several thousand years ago. You can look at frescoes, which are very nice, but they’re not as concrete about what the ancients were thinking. With text, it’s just like being there and talking with them about their beliefs and how they saw the world.”

    Peter’s journey toward solving the inscription of the Potaissa sphinx (so called because it’s believed to come from Potaissa, a Roman military camp located in present-day Romania) began with his conjecture that the undeciphered inscription refers to the depicted winged lion above it and is also a religious text.  

    An early step towards decipherment is to analyze the type of writing. “But you don’t just have to solve the words,” Peter says, “you have to solve the signs.” In other words, does a particular piece of writing, such as the sphinx’s mysterious text, use pictograms, an alphabet, a syllabary, or something else? 

    In his recent research paper, Revesz discussed a 1980 publication by the archaeologist Nicolae Vlassa in which he attempted to decipher the Potaissa sphinx inscription in the Greek language. Vlassa recognized that the writing is read from right to left, is mirror-reversed, and makes use of the Greek alphabet, although his proposed translation in the Greek language could not be accepted due to some errors.

    Revesz theorized that the inscription, while not in Greek, uses archaic Greek letters to phonetically render words from a language that didn’t use an alphabet. By using database comparisons to cross-reference multiple archaic versions of the Greek alphabet, Revesz improved Vlassa’s transcription of the sphinx inscription into the accurate archaic Greek letters. After converting the sequence of Greek letters to a sequence of their corresponding phonetic sounds, Peter discovered a proto-Hungarian text. The text was revealed to be a poem that made use of rhythmic meter and alliteration and may have been put to music during some religious service. His translation, which appeared in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, is appropriately triumphant for something emerging from centuries of obscurity: “Lo, behold, worship! Here is the holy lion!”

    Peter’s discovery has scholarly implications both for the diversity of language (proto-Hungarian speakers may have been resettled into the Potaissa area after Roman colonization) and religious practice (sphinx worship has Egyptian and Greek origins and was not part of mainstream Roman mythology) in the Roman Empire.

    For more details about how Peter deciphered the inscription, read this University of Nebraska-Lincoln news item or watch this six-minute video of him talking about his discovery and the spread of sphinxes in ancient Africa, Asia, and Europe.

    Looking back to his time at Brown, Peter remembers Paris as one of many Brown CS community members who had diverse interests, working at a time of rapid growth in the field. 

    “It was encouraged at Brown,” he says, “to have an exploration of great novel ideas. At that time, many of the faculty members were writing textbooks: not in some sort of standard and encyclopedic fashion, but in such a way as to redefine their subject. Look at the very radical work done by [late University Professor Emeritus of Computer Science and Cognitive Science] Eugene Charniak – I was very inspired by that.”

    “I took courses in cognitive science,” Peter recalls, “and later on used neural networks in a project about sign language. No two people sign the same way, and neural networks have advantages because they can be more flexible in learning a new language. Many of my peers were also doing interdisciplinary things, and I loved that everyone seemed to know everyone else. I’m very glad I was at Brown.” 

    Asked for his advice for students who are interested in combining computation with another field, Peter recalls an earlier era in which any kind of multidisciplinary work felt strange and new: “Now, people have been working on things like bioinformatics for so long that they don’t feel as exciting. I encourage students to look for the novel. Computer science can contribute to the humanities, not just to medical science and areas that have been heavily done. Take a look at all the possible things you can do, because people in these smaller fields can use your help. All the things we’ve overlooked are a golden opportunity.”

    For more information, click the link that follows to contact Brown CS Communications Manager Jesse C. Polhemus.